My first thought when asked to summarize the course at the time was that it couldn’t be described in terms of content--it was how one was transformed as a person through this experience that was significant. And indeed this was Nouwen’s preface to the course, that it was to be one which would focus on“forming the heart—not informing the mind.” He noted that his challenge was to teach spirituality in a spiritual way, rather than through an academic approach. And he succeeded. As the course progressed, I realized that its value was in affirming one’s spiritual insights and in recognizing that, according to Nouwen, “what is most personal is universal.” For as he suggests, “the purpose of teaching is to reveal to you what you already know—not what you don’t know.”
But to explore the course content a bit—the text was the mystical Gospel of John, as inspiration rather than exegesis; and while the course carried the somewhat bland title of “Introduction to Spirituality”, it encompassed everything from sexuality to world peace. Using the prologue as an introduction to the course, “In the beginning was the Word”, Nouwen infused all aspects of the Word—listening, speaking, reading, writing—with their spiritual meaning. For example, he said writing is not having an idea first and then putting it down on paper, but rather a process through which ideas emerge and you become aware of what you are thinking: “You write that you will come to know yourself and God.” In this sense all of us are natural writers.
The main body of the course was based on three themes Nouwen sees running through the Gospel of John:
intimacy, with God and in interpersonal relationships. Fear, not hate, is the opposite of love and its obstacle he said. When we accept God’s unconditional love, we can find joy in the limited expression of this love in our intimate relationships, without feeling that we have to be God for each other. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18)
Fecundity--fruitfulness, as opposed to productivity. Our fruits come to us when we’re not looking for them, when we don’t make them our first concern but live fully in the moment. Our task is simply to trust and to accept our fruits in gratitude and celebration. “Whoever remains in me, with me in him or her, bears fruit in plenty.” (John 15:5)
Ecstacy—complete joy which transcends both sadness and gladness, a place from which to look objectively at moods wherein “anxiety becomes destructive and happiness seductive.” We all have a right to live ecstatic lives, to move out of the static places to a place of freedom, where security is not our prime concern. This has implications for world peace as well. “I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
The final lecture dealt with leaving. Jesus said, “. . . it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor (Spirit) will not come to you . . . “ (John 16:7)—I want to leave you so that you can find what is uniquely yours. A “good leaving”, said Nouwen (I’m with you now, but it’s good for you that I leave), enriches relationships in life—we get in the way; absences and remembering can bring about a greater sense of intimacy—and ultimately in death. Grieving is a way of bringing about a new sense of presence, a new spirit which grows when someone dies, if we have dared to love fully. This theme of presence in absence was a recurring one throughout the course.
In his absence, Henri’s spirit continues to guide our spiritual growth.